How to Shoot Waterfalls

There aren’t too many places that capture the essence of serenity and tranquility quite like waterfalls. There is something inherently relaxing and peaceful about waterfalls – maybe is the sounds of rushing water or maybe there is something therapeutic about watching water tumble over rocks. Nonetheless, waterfalls have attracted photographers since landscape photography was in its embryonic stages.

Waterfalls do present themselves as both a wonderful and challenging subject matter to photographers. Firstly they’re beautiful places, secondly they are often in tricky lighting situations and thirdly they’re a dynamic subject as they’re moving (and of course movement means a challenge but also a real opportunity for a more dynamic shot).

How do i get that silky effect in the water?

  • Like flowing rivers or seascapes, waterfalls work especially well when you can blur the water. This isn’t to say that every waterfall shot you take should be blurred, but if you’re looking to create a shot with a difference, or simply to create an ethereal quality to the image then this is a good starting point. 
  • If your choice is for a long exposure to create the silky effect in the water, then the exposure time should be at least 1/4 second or longer. Normally this will mean using a small aperture (f11 – f22), by doing this you achieve two goals. One, it allows for slower speed settings making the waterfalls look silky, and two, you get as much depth of field as possible, there by allowing the maximum amount of focus – depth of in your composition. 
  • Blur will begin around 1/15 of a second but makes itself really felt from 1/4 of a second onwards. Once you get into the seconds – or even into the minutes on slide film – you can create a really milky blur. This way instead of a stream of pure white, you can produce lovely blurs of green, blue, brown or any other colour being reflected in the water.

When is the best time to shoot waterfalls?

  • Weather is a key consideration: the quality of light is perhaps the most important of all considerations when photographing waterfalls. Photographing waterfalls in forests and rainforests is a challenge. Sunlight reaching into the forest creates areas a lot brighter than the rest of the scene including surrounding shadows that neither film nor digital cameras can handle the contrast range (the difference between the bright and dark areas of an image. For this reason, the best waterfall images are taken on overcast days with the sun’s direct light is diffused and softened by the cloud cover. Under these circumstances direct sunlight doesn’t affect the image, so the contrast is manageable. 
  • As a general rule, I photograph waterfalls that are in the woods only on overcast or even rainy days where the light is diffused rather than direct. Here I use a slow shutter speed and a small aperture. Additionally, remember if you’re using slower shutter speeds, then wind will blur ferns and foliage. So be mindful as with cloud often comes wind, so ideally shoot on calm days. 
  • In overcast conditions, be mindful that this will alter your colour temperature, so alterations in photoshop may be necessary (or use your camera’s ‘shade’ feature on the white balance menu). 
  • Photographing in the rain is annoying as you get wet, but if you can find a little shelter or can juggle an umbrella, the results will be both distinctive and appealing. Photographing in the rain or just after rain produces beautiful, saturated colour. When wet, branches, leaves, flowers, foliage and rocks seem to shimmer with colour. 
  • One of the easiest ways to produce a striking waterfall photograph is to be up early on a foggy or misty day. Fog and mist can help reduce the scene to its most important elements and hide distracting backgrounds. 
  • Early morning is best, as you are more likely to have the falls shrouded in mist and the light is less direct that high noon (even under an overcast sky).

What are the best exposure settings?

  • If you are using a small aperture setting to achieve more depth of field and create motion blur in the water, you will require a longer shutter speed to compensate on the exposure side. There are two types of movement to content with: a) subject movement and, b) camera movement. Both can produce image blur, but when photographing waterfalls you only want subject movement. A sturdy tripod is therefore necessary. 
  • What makes photographing waterfalls tricky no matter which approach you choose, whether using short or long exposure times, is getting the proper exposure. The beauty of digital photography is trial and error. Keep shooting until you get a desirable histogram. 
  • Use either semi-manual camera mode such as aperture priority. This means that you dial in the desirable aperture (ie f/16) and the camera meter will do the rest and calculate the corresponding shutter speed. Alternatively you can use a fully manual exposure mode, but dialling in both aperture and shutter speed. This however, is only recommended if you fully grasp the concepts of exposure and understand the interplay between shutter speed and aperture. 
  • Use the lowest native ISO setting on your camera. I use a slide film camera, so therefore the ISO is the film’s rating. Digital offers more flexibility – therefore it is recommended to dial in ISO settings of 100 or lower.

Use a polarising filter

  • Use a polarising filter, a polarising filter will help cut down the glare on the water and saturate the green forestry that frames many a waterfall. Obviously, circular polarising filters such as Tiffen, Cokin and Lee are best. I would suggest that if you do not own a polariser, get one!

Research your locations

  • If you have a particular destination in mid it pays to do a little research before taking your trip. Research will help you to avoid disappointment and can give you ideas for different viewpoints or even different locations. The more knowledge you have the better. For instance you may find that getting off the boardwalk will pay dividends and you may have to roll up the trousers and get your feet wet to find interesting and rewarding compositions.